Acoustic upgrades earn applause in Bristol’s Holley Hall

BRISTOL — “Can you hear me now?”
In Holley Hall, where a new sound system made its debut at Bristol’s annual town meeting March 5, the answer was a resounding “Yes.”
The system is part of a $75,000 acoustic upgrade that also included a ceiling treatment and sound-dampening window shades.
Those who struggled through concerts, theatrical productions and public meetings in the cavernous space said the improvements were long overdue.
If you mentioned the words “acoustic” and “Holley Hall” in the same breath, everyone knew exactly what you were talking about, said Carol Wells, whose group “Let’s Hear It for Holley Hall” was the driving force behind the project.
The acoustics in the 134-year-old building were designed to work best for packed houses, she said, which were much more common before radio, TV, cinema and the internet.
For smaller gatherings, however, the echoes in the auditorium were almost unbearable.
“Musicians would refuse to play there because the acoustics were so bad,” Wells said.
“Let’s Hear It for Holley Hall” worked for years to secure grants, raise money and increase public awareness. In 2016 they released a “Bristol Au Naturel” calendar that featured nearly naked residents posing in various locations around town.
In 2018 the town of Bristol secured a grant for $21,000 from the Cultural Facilities Grant Program of the Vermont Arts Council.
Tim Johnston of Bristol’s Tree Ridge Enterprise conducted the initial acoustic analysis.
Using sound modeling software, he determined which improvements would give Holley Hall the biggest bang for the buck. Treating the ceiling, he concluded, was 90 percent of the solution.
“A sound system is only as good as the room it’s in,” Johnston said.
A firm in Framingham, Mass., was hired to spray Holley Hall’s ceiling with a fireproofing material that also reduces echoes and improves sound transmission.
Johnston then designed and installed a two-way Bose sound system that provides even coverage, flat frequency response and speech intelligibility throughout the hall.
New speakers in the balcony operate on a slight delay to deliver sound at exactly the same moment it would have arrived from the stage without amplification. This prevents the brain from processing the sound twice, which allows the listener to focus on the stage and not the speaker, Johnston said.
New, too, are 16 assistive listening devices available to anyone who struggles with hearing issues. The pocket size receivers, which comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act, come with their own ear buds and feature individual volume control.
Ted Lylis, a member of the Bristol selectboard, was the first to give one a try.
“I’ve lived in this town for 40 years, and this was the first time I heard everything at town meeting,” he said. “It was astounding.”
Lylis said he’s looking forward to attending concerts in Holley Hall.
“I love the honesty of live music,” he said, “but the sound in Holley Hall was always so annoying.”
Johnston said he’s heard nothing but positive reviews so far.
Just hours before town meeting, he held an information session on the new system.
When asked if he thought that session went well, Lylis said, “I don’t know. I couldn’t hear all of it.” He laughed. “I wasn’t using the assistive listening device yet.”
Everyone thought it went well, he added.
The results: that night’s town meeting went off without a hitch.
Christopher Ross is at [email protected].

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